Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Are the Conservatives targeting the 'faith vote'?

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Conservative candidate Chris Emmett has produced a leaflet
appealing to Christian voters in the Corby by-election
The National Secular Society have pointed out an intriguing piece on the popular Conservative Home blog, in which site editor and Conservative Christian Fellowship founder Tim Montgomerie suggests that the Conservative Party is using the upcoming Corby by-election to "road test" a strategy which involves the candidate appealing to religious voters by emphasising their own religious beliefs.

The party's candidate in Corby, Chris Emmett, has produced a leaflet for local churchgoers in which she explains the importance of her faith:
"My faith guides me in everything I do. It has also supported me through difficult times and it is important in a job serving the public to have the full support of my family and the greater church. I feel blessed to have both. I’ve been an active member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship for many years."
Emmett also receives the backing of a local councillor, David Sims (no relation!), on account of her Christian faith:
"It is a great encouragement to me to see an increasing number of Christians recognise their
call to serve their communities in public life, not out of a love of power, but persuaded by the power of love. This ranges from those who are prepared to serve the democratic process in relatively mundane and unseen ways, but also includes our Parliamentary Candidate, Christine Emmett, who needs our support."

It's an approach welcomed by Montgomery, who writes that the leaflet "does a good job of emphasising Chris Emmett's genuine belief without getting preachy" and says he hopes to "see this model replicated with newspapers for people of other faiths". 
However, the National Secular Society are sceptical as to whether the "faith vote" approach has any chance of catching on in this country:
"Opinion polls seem to suggest that there isn't any significant religious vote to be targeted. Most people don't go to a church, synagogue or temple, and although they are not in the main anti-religious, and might even define themselves as Christians, they can't be reached through any organised religious structure.

And even the ones who do go to church, and can be reached through their place of worship, are unlikely to make their voting decisions based on their religion.

Other polls show that church-goers are just as likely as the population at large to make their voting decisions based on a range of issues rather than on religious considerations alone. Catholics in particular seem to be at odds with their church on social issues. Demands by priests that their communicants vote in accordance with Catholic doctrine generally fall on deaf ears.

So, even if she could reach a large number of religiously-active voters, it is unlikely that they would cast their vote based on the teachings of their church. Like everyone else, they tend to take into account wider considerations, such as the economy, whether the local hospital will close, how the current government is performing on jobs and welfare etc.

Another finding from polls is that more than 80 per cent of the population do not want religion to be involved in public policy-making. Nor do they don't want religious leaders to have influence on parliamentary decisions.

So, in emphasising her faith she risks alienating another section of potential supporters – those who are suspicious of and even maybe hostile to religiously-motivated politicians."
As the NSS point out, this is Britain, not Kansas.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Atheists fear for their safety in Egypt as Alber Saber trial continues

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Alber Saber is on trial in Egypt for insulting religion
It's worth taking a look at this troubling piece from English language Egypt Independent site, which reports on the concerns of the country's atheists in light of the recent controversy over the anti-Islamic Innocence of Muslims film and the arrest of Alber Saber, a 27-year-old Cairo resident accused of posting sections of the film on Facebook.

Saber, an atheist from a Coptic Christian family, was arrested after neighbours reported him during the international controversy over Innocence of Muslims, and is currently on trial after being charged under Article 98(w) of the Egyptian Penal Code, which outlaws the use of religion to “promote extremist thoughts with the intention of creating dissent or insulting a Abrahamic religion” or “undermining national unity”. Human rights groups have complained about the conditions in which Saber is being held, pointing to both the food he is being provided with and the threat to his safety from other prisoners, and Amnesty International have urged people to write to the Egyptian authorities appealing for his release. There is also a petition calling for his release.

The Egypt Independent piece on the country's atheists reports on a group who had taken to holding weekly meetings in Cairo, but who have begun to think twice following the charges against Saber. While the emergence of such meetings suggests that atheists in Egypt have been tentatively growing more confident about discussing their beliefs (we reported on one group in New Humanist last year), Egypt Independent points out that there are still many obstacles in the way of the free expression of atheism in the country, both in terms of social taboos (which carry the danger of reprisals from religious believers) and the country's penal code, which features three articles criminalising blasphemy.

It's a reminder that, while the events of the Arab Spring have brought new and hard-won freedoms to the region, freedom of belief is far from secure, and may in fact be under greater threat following the election of the Muslim Brotherhood-led government in Egypt.

It's also a reminder of the abhorrence of blasphemy laws – as I report in the current issue of New Humanist, in the aftermath of Innocence of Muslims some have suggested that there ought to be restrictions on the criticism or mockery of religion, but before compromising on free speech they would do well to observe how blasphemy legislation is used in many Muslim-majority states to oppress those who would diverge from mainstream religious positions.

Bad Faith Award 2012: still time to nominate

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A few weeks ago we put out the call for nominations for the 2012 Bad Faith Award, as we began the search for the individual who will succeed the 2011 winner, Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, as the undefeated, undisputed champion of irrationality.

As ever there was no shortage of nominations as our Bad Faith Award, now in its sixth year, continued to provide unscientific evidence that humanity is failing to take annual steps towards greater rationality.

In the new issue of New Humanist we promise that the final shortlist will be compiled and that a poll will appear on this blog by Thursday 1 November. So the purpose of this post is to issue a final call – tell us your nominations now, or forever hold your peace.

You don't want to arrive here to vote this coming Thursday, only to find that history has passed you by and your favoured candidate is missing from the shortlist. Nominate now by leaving a comment on this post or sending an email to editor@newhumanist.org.uk.

This is surely the most important election to be taking place in the opening days of November 2012, so have your say and nominate today. To give you an idea of what we're looking for, here are four early frontrunners for the prize.
Lord Carey: The former Archbishop of Canterbury has been on fine form this year in his current guise as right-wing newspaper pundit and outspoken opponent of gay marriage. In April he declared that it “is now Christians who are persecuted” in Britain, “often sought out and framed by homosexual activists”, despite having written in the Daily Mail two months earlier that "British Christians are not being persecuted, as some have said".
Cardinal Keith O’Brien: Ever the bridesmaid, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland has been nominated for the award in the past, but he has surely increased his chances in 2012 with his campaigning against gay marriage. In March he likened the marriage reforms to the legalisation of slavery, and suggested it may be “time now to call a halt to what you might call ‘progress’ in society”.

Baroness Warsi: Another past contender, the former Tory party chair and recently appointed “Minister for Faith” secured a position as one of the favourites for the 2012 award when she used a visit to the Vatican to say that “a militant secularisation is taking hold” in Britain which “demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes.”

Prince Charles: Special thanks to blog reader John Hind, who nominated the heir to the throne for a“lifetime achievement” award. Here’s his reasoning: “there can be few other candidates with such a broad, multi-disciplinary record for irrationality and for shamelessly exploiting his inherited position to advance irrational causes,  from his trenchant support of quack medicine and his jumping aboard every anti-scientific bandwagon, to his indiscriminate support of ‘faith’ against secular values.”

Friday, 26 October 2012

What’s going on at the Rationalist Association?

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This morning we launch RA Today, the first look at the work being done by our web team that will – in December – result in a completely new way to view and interact with everything we are doing. These first pages give an early look at what the new site will be like. We’ve had a complete design overhaul, with a new and lovely font, Ubuntu (which is available free to download), a much better use of space and pictures, and a whole new feel.

But what’s really innovative about the site is not simply a matter of design, or to be precise it is a matter of design but not just pretty pictures. At the heart of the project is UX (user experience) and UI (user interface) design by the talented duo Mr & Mrs OK (aka John Oxton and Rachel King) who have designed the experience of the site with two core, and very new, principles in mind: “Mobile first” and “Responsive design”.

Mobile first, as the name suggests, means thinking about people who are coming to the site on mobile devices first and working back to desktop. Rather than designing a flashy, heavy site which fails to load or looks crap on phones, we have taken seriously the transformation that has been wrought by mobile internet and recognise that the use of the internet on hand held devices has gone from unusual, to normal to ubiquitous in what feels like a couple of weeks. (On my commute books are already outnumbered by Kindles and newspapers completely dwarfed by those reading on their phones.)

Mobile first goes hand-in-hand with "responsive design", which means the website changes and resizes and is pretty on any screen size, any device. Rather than having to have lots of different versions of the site, one size really does fit all: it works properly and looks beautiful however you wish to access it (to test this, visit the RA Today page on a desktop monitor or laptop and resize your browser window to any size - see how the page changes to remain readable, and lovely, on any size screen).

This design philosophy, which hasn't been around that long, has recently become the industry standard with both Google and Microsoft coming out in favour (Microsoft’s new site is responsive and, because of that, we forgive them a multitude of sins). The Guardian are working on a responsive site of their own – they released this prototype only last week. We have been really lucky to find, in John and Rachel working with our developer for many years Julian Halliwell of Simplicity, a team who really understand the new environment and have the skill and flair to make it happen. They have also been introducing us to a new ways of working, using Agile, Google Docs and regular "stand-up" meetings, which are seriously fun and productive.

But what’s it all for? Of course, it will be great to have a beautiful and fully accessible new website to host all our great content. But what are we trying to achieve? We are seeking to fulfil our charitable aims which are and have always been to promote and educate about rationalism, humanism and secularism. We do this through publishing – New Humanist magazine, our website, our blog, podcasts – through events and media advocacy. A new accessible and attractive site will increase our ability to do this, especially to reach out to the younger people who (as Whitney Houston knew) are the future.

But the new site is also a response to some harsh economic realities. We are a small independent charity. We've never had money from governments, foundations or corporations (who won’t even advertise because they are scared to be associated with atheism). In recent years our focus has been on attracting paying subscribers to our print magazine. We've done a good job, growing our subscriber base from around 1,000 to more than 5,000 in 4 years, and increasing revenue by 80 per cent over that period. But it’s still not enough to sustain us, and, oh yeah guess what , print is dying if not dead already (or so says Andrew Sullivan).

We are not stopping printing New Humanist, but we are trying another tack alongside it. We want to persuade people who are sympathetic to the values we represent to join the RA. We want this website to showcase, in the best possible light, the things we do  – the great articles, the relevant blogs and links, the events, the campaigning. We want to show people what we do, and keep them up to date and connected to the issues that matter, so they are persuaded that we are A GOOD THING and worth supporting. See our membership page to see the full pitch (you can even watch me make the pitch in a video, if that's your thing), and, if you are convinced, please become a member.

So that’s the plan.

At the moment we are thrilled to have something to show you. It’s a work in progress, though we hope you'll find it useful. Every day we’ll post something new on RA Today (weekends and holidays included), and although at the moment it links back to our ‘old’ New Humanist site it should still work as an efficient way to see what we’re up to. So why not bookmark it, and please do visit it on all your appliances – iPads, phones, washing machines, whatever – we need to know it works for everyone.

We want to know what you think so please use the feedback form to tell us – good or bad, glitches or gripes, bring it on.

This is merely a taster for the main course. I've nipped into the kitchen and seen what the chef is up to for the main site, and believe me it looks delicious.

Read more about the project on designer John Oxton's blog.

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Call for non-religious representation at Remembrance Day commemorations

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As we enter the annual period of remembrance for those who have died while serving in the military, the United Kingdom Armed Forces Humanist Association and the British Humanist Association have launched their third annual campaign for the inclusion of non-religious representatives at the national Remembrance Day services.

It is perhaps not widely known that while the national Remembrance Sunday service held at the Cenotaph in Whitehall features representatives from all major faiths, no representatives of non-religious groups take part. In fact, non-religious representatives are actively excluded – in both 2010 and 2011, requests by humanists for inclusion alongside religious representatives were rejected by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

This is despite the fact that over 26,000 members of the armed forces have described themselves as having "no religion, a figure eight times greater than the combined total who identify with non-Christian religions.

Non-religious groups have succeeded in gaining representation at local remembrance services in recent years, for example in Edinburgh, Belfast, Birmingham, Sheffield, and Richmond, but they remain excluded from the national commemoration.

As this year's event approaches, the Armed Forces Humanist Association and the BHA are appealing to supporters to write to their MP to ask them to lobby Hugh Robertson, the Secretary for Tourism and Sport with responsibility for the remembrance service, to make the 2012 commemoration an inclusive one. You can find links on how to do this on the For All Who Serve Campaign Website.

For some related reading, take a look at this moving piece from New Humanist by Chris Holden, a Petty Officer in the Royal Navy who describes his experience as an atheist attending religious commemorations for the fallen while serving in Afghanistan.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Podcast: does Christianity make sense?

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In our September issue we ran a piece entitled "Dear Atheists...", in which Francis Spufford, author of the new book Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, called on atheists to admit that they might be wrong about God, and suggested that it may be time for greater mutual respect between Christians and non-believers.

As you may be able to tell from my summary, those two points didn't necessarily go hand in hand, and there's no doubt that Spufford was prodding atheist sensibilities while simultaneously calling for greater agreement between the faithful and the faithless. When we publish such pieces, we do some with the aim of starting a debate among our readers, and it was no surprise to see emails coming in as soon as the magazine began to land on subscribers' doormats. In fact, we received more letters in response to Spufford than to any piece we've published before (certainly in our time working here), as well as an array of comments on the online article, Twitter and Facebook.

A few weeks after the magazine was published, our editor Caspar Melville went to interview Spufford for the Pod Academy, a growing podcast project focused on the latest research and writing in science and the humanities. Caspar put some of our readers' objections to Spufford, and you can hear the discussion between the two of them in the podcast, which has the wonderfully straightforward title "Does Christianity still make sense?"

We're now working in partnership with the Pod Academy when their podcasts cross over with our areas of interest, so you can listen to Caspar's interview with Spufford through our new Rationalist Association podcast channel, hosted at Soundcloud. Use the player below, or visit our Soundcloud channel to download it and subscribe to future podcasts.

Also, you can read many of the letters we received in response to Spufford in the new November/December issue of New Humanist, which is out this coming Thursday.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Lord Carey draws parallels between gay marriage reform and Nazism

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Another day, another nominee for our 2012 Bad Faith Award. The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has actually spent most of the year talking himself into contention through his opposition to gay marriage and his warnings of anti-Christian persecution in Britain, but it would appear he has decided to up his game following the opening of the Bad Faith nominations process.

Because, surely, that's the only logical explanation for why he would choose to say the following at an anti-gay marriage fringe event at the Conservative Party conference yesterday, with reference to Nick Clegg's recent suggestion that opponents of the marriage reform are "bigots":
"Let us remember the Jews in Nazi Germany. What started against them was when they started to be called names. And that was the first stage towards that totalitarian state. We have to resist them. We treasure democracy. We treasure our Christian inheritance and we want to debate this in a fair way."
For analysis of quite why this statement is at best deeply ignorant and at worst staggeringly offensive, read this post by Guardian blogger and occasional New Humanist contributor Martin Robbins. And look out for the opportunity to vote for Carey in the Bad Faith poll later this month – the only question surrounding his place on the shortlist concerns whether we should include all the individuals who have made irrational statements in opposition to the equal marriage reforms, or simply put forward the Coalition for Marriage as a collective nomination. Let us know what you think in the comments.

Update: The Telegraph's Tom Chivers (himself no fan of the former Archbishop) has looked at Carey's comments in their fuller context, and suggested that critics have been wrong to attack him on this occasion. Take a look at his post and see what you think.

Monday, 8 October 2012

New Humanist Podcast October 2012: circumcision, forced marriage, and the myth of the mummy's curse

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Length – 36:40

In the October 2012 edition of the New Humanist podcast, editor Caspar Melville talks to three of the contributors to our September/October issue.

First, he meets the writer and documentary producer Toby Lichtig to discuss one of the hot issues of the moment – male circumcision (00:40). Since a court in Germany ruled that the circumcision of infant boys constitutes "bodily harm", the ethics of the procedure have been widely debated, and the subject is explored by Toby in his piece in the current issue of New Humanist. Is it a violation of human rights to circumcise a child, or is it a harmless ethnic signifier? And what about the supposed health benefits? Tune into the podcast to hear Toby's take on the debate.

We go from one contentious issue to another, as in the second part of the podcast Caspar talks to Sarah Ditum, who has written about forced marriage in the latest magazine (09:53). Each year, hundreds of children in the UK are forced into marriages against their will, and the authorities often lack the knowledge or the power to intervene. In the podcast, Sarah explains the cultural origins of forced marriages, and discusses what is being done to protect those at risk.

In the final section, Caspar speaks to cultural historian Roger Luckhurst, who has just written a fascinating new book on the myth of the mummy's curse (19:40). Where does the myth come from (not from Ancient Egypt, you may be surprised to hear), and why does it have such resonance in Western culture?

Podcast music by Andrea Rocca.

To listen to the podcast, which is just over 36 minutes long, use the player below, subscribe via RSS or email, or download the full file via our podcast page, where you can also find the full archive of the podcasts we published during 2008-9. We're also on iTunes - just search for "New Humanist" in the store and select the podcast subtitled "The podcast for godless people".

US Congressman: evolution is a lie 'straight from the pit of Hell'

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Last week on the blog, we invited you to put forward your nominations for our 2012 Bad Faith Award, which is presented to the individual deemed to have made the year's outstanding contribution to unreason. We've had plenty of suggestions so far (and please keep them coming), but there's nothing to stop us from throwing in a few of our own.

So, meet Paul Broun. He represents the people of Georgia's 10th district in the US Congress. He's a member of the House of Representatives' Committee on Science and Technology. He's a medical doctor. And he thinks that evolution and the big bang theory are "lies straight from the pit of Hell":
"God's word is true. I've come to understand that. All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the big bang theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell. It's lies to try to keep me and all the folks who were taught that from understanding that they need a savior.

"You see, there are a lot of scientific data that I've found out as a scientist that actually show that this is really a young Earth. I don't believe that the earth's but about 9,000 years old. I believe it was created in six days as we know them. That's what the Bible says."
Broun was speaking at a Sportsman's Banquet at Liberty Baptist Church in Hartwell, Georgia – here's the video clip, which was uploaded by the liberal Bridge Project.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Germany to legislate to protect right of parents to circumcise boys

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Earlier this year, a regional court in Cologne sparked a worldwide debate over the issue of male circumcision when it ruled that it constitutes "bodily harm" and "a violation of physical integrity" which is not outweighed by the parents' "right to religious upbringing of their children".

Now, the Guardian reports that the German government is to legislate to safeguard the right of parents to have the procedure performed on their male children. In a move the paper says is designed to "appease the Jewish and Muslim communities angered by a court ruling", the proposed bill will allow "circumcision to be carried out on boys up to six months old by a doctor or someone as 'skilled as a doctor'."

While new legislation would draw a line under the legal controversy in Germany, it is unlikely to end the debate over circumcision. The Cologne case led to impassioned arguments between opponents and defenders of the procedure, not least here on the New Humanist blog, where our post on the story became one of the most commented on that we've ever run. While some pointed to religious freedom and the supposed health benefits of circumcision as reasons to oppose a ban, many argued that it is a dangerous procedure which constitutes a violation of a child's human rights, and 88 per cent of those who voted in our poll on the issue said that it should be banned.

We subsequently ran a fascinating examination of the arguments in our current issue by Toby Lichtig, a secular Jew who has first-hand experience of debating the ethics of circumcision within his own family – if you'd like to explore the subject in more detail, it's a highly recommended read.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Student society ejected from Freshers' Fair for naming a pineapple 'Muhammad'

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A pineapple with no name
The controversial issue of blasphemy and Muhammad has taken one of its more surreal turns as a student atheist group were ejected from their university Freshers Fair for naming a pineapple after the Prophet.

According to a statement, the Reading University Atheist, Humanist, and Secularist Society (RAHS) were running a stall at the annual event for new students when a representative of the university student union (RUSU) came forward to complain about what was on display:
"Among the material displayed on our stall was a pineapple. We labelled this pineapple 'Mohammed', to encourage discussion about blasphemy, religion, and liberty, as well as to celebrate the fact that we live in a country in which free speech is protected, and where it is lawful to call a pineapple by whatever name one chooses.

Towards the end of the afternoon, we were informed by a member of RUSU staff that there had been complaints about the pineapple, despite the fact that no complaints had been made at any point to anybody on the stall. Our commitment to freedom of expression meant that we refused to remove the pineapple from our stall. After a few minutes, we were told by another member of RUSU staff that 'Either the pineapple goes, or you do', whereupon they seized the pineapple and tried to leave. However, the pineapple was swiftly returned, and shortly was displayed again, with the name Mohammed changed to that of Jesus."
Shortly afterwards, the atheist society were asked to leave the event. An argument broke our between members of the society and "a group of around five students, some of whom self-identified as Muslim" and, while the statement says that "these students mainly engaged in discussion", one of them "removed the label from the pineapple without our permission".

The society were "ultimately forced to leave the venue", and they have now stated that they believe the incident violated their right to free expression within their univeristy:
"The RAHS believes in freedom of expression. Our intent in displaying a pineapple labelled 'Mohammed' was to draw attention to cases where religion has been used to limit this and other fundamental rights, such as the imprisonment of Gillian Gibbons. We did not expect to be forced out of the Freshers' Fayre because of a pineapple, and we are disappointed that RUSU took this action."
It would be interesting to hear what you think of this story. It is reminiscent of a controversy that broke out earlier this year at University College, London, when the atheist society there were asked by their student union to remove a Jesus & Mo cartoon from their Facebook page. However, that incident concerned a Facebook page specifically designed for members of the atheist society, whereas the Reading pineapple was on display at an event intended for all students.

Were the Reading atheist society wrong to do something deliberately provocative at such an event (and, by extension, were the SU right to ask them to remove the pineapple), or was the society's freedom of expression undermined by actions of the union reprsentatives?

Thoughts in the comments, please.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Bad Faith Awards 2012: who will you nominate?

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As sure as summer gives way to autumn, a very special time of year comes around once more as we ask the readers of New Humanist to put forward their nominees for our Bad Faith Award – the gold standard prize for enemies of reason, the glittering accolade against which all other awards for services to irrationalism must be measured.

The Bad Faith Award celebrates its sixth birthday this year, but as we enter the nomination process it's tough to predict whether anything can top what happened in 2011, when the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries took home the prize with a stunning 53 per cent of the vote.

Having discovered that she was nominated for the Bad Faith Award on account of her vocal anti-choice position, Dorries became the first person to actively campaign for victory, taking to her blog and a local Bedfordshire newspaper to suggest that humanists believe in killing babies "up until the point where the child had the ability to reason, understand and justify life", and describe New Humanist as "an anti-faith, anti-religious cult" which holds "extreme views dressed up as acceptable in an online glossy magazine".

Will any of the 2012 nominees be able to better Dorries' perfomance? Well, the first challenge is to establish who those nominees will be, and that's where you come in. We want you to tell who us who you think has made the year's contribution to unreason. How you wish to define such a contribution is up to you – whether it's a cleric displaying intolerance in the name of their faith, a politician slating secularism, or a quack pushing a cure that flies in the face of scientific evidence, they're all eligible for consideration.

All you need to do is leave a comment on this post, email editor@newhumanist.org.uk or tweet @NewHumanist, telling who you want to nominate. Where possible, provide a supporting web link.

Once all the nominations are in, we'll devise a shortlist and open a poll at the end of October. The winner will be announced in the January issue of New Humanist.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Don't miss your chance to see "brilliant raconteur" Jonathan Miller in London on 19 October

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Update, 15 Oct – We're giving away 5 pairs of tickets (worth £50) to this event. For your chance to win, just answer the following question: What was the name of the groundbreaking comedy revue in which Jonathan Miller starred alongside Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore?

Send your answers to editor@newhumanist.org.uk

Jonathan Miller: A Reasonable Life – 7.30pm, Friday 19 October, Bishopsgate Institute, London EC2M 4QH

What do Alan Bennett, Rigoletto, the New Yorker, neuropsychology, The Taming of the Shrew, John Cleese, Alice in Wonderland and the history of atheism have in common?

They have all featured in the extraordinary, uncategorisable career of Sir Jonathan Miller.

In a sixty-year career spanning Beyond The Fringe, medicine, numerous books and articles, directing hundreds of TV and stage plays and operas, and presenting some of the most vibrant and intelligent television documentaries ever – like the ground-breaking The Body in Question – Jonathan Miller is a true one-off.

“A brilliant raconteur, he puts the ‘poly’ into ‘polymath’” – The Times

Sir Jonathan Miller is President of the Rationalist Association, and we are delighted to be presenting a special evening, Jonathan Miller: A Reasonable Life, on 19 October at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. At this charity benefit for the RA, Jonathan Miller will be discussing his life, work, and incurable curiosity with Laurie Taylor (In Confidence/Thinking Allowed). The talk will be followed by a chance to enjoy a complimentary drink and mingle with the speakers and your fellow audience members.

Don’t miss the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with one of our greatest public intellectuals. Seats are severely limited and going fast. Book now to avoid disappointment.

If you're a member of the Rationalist Association, the British Humanist Association, the National Secular Society or the South Place Ethical Society you can buy tickets at the members' rate of £15. Simply select the Members' Ticket on our event sales page, or call 01371 851881 to order by phone.

Monday, 1 October 2012

Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012

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Eric Hobsbawm, 1917-2012
We're very sad that the eminent historian Eric Hobsbawm has died at the age of 95. He was an honorary associate of the Rationalist Association and a great friend to New Humanist – he would always respond to our messages, and was extremely generous in providing us with content for the magazine.

In fact, we published a short line from him in our current issue. It's on the free "Back to University" poster that came with the issue, for which we asked our friends and contributors to tell us the best thing they learned at university. Here's what Eric Hobsbawm told us he learned at Cambridge between 1936 and 1939:
"I got more out of university, both as an undergraduate and graduate, by working and discussion in student groups than from formal lectures."
He also contributed a passage to our feature marking the 10th anniversary of 9/11 last year. We asked him to tell us what he believed was the greatest threat facing the world in the post-9/11 era. Here was his answer:
"The greatest threat facing the world is not religious extremism per se but the conditions which have generated it; life in unjust societies transformed at uncontrollable speed, as rules and conventions that had regulated social and personal relations for most of their history are discarded. There is no doubt that in many parts of the world extremist versions of traditional faiths, themselves in rebellion against older established religious practice, have been major  beneficiaries of this situation, particularly where they can be combined with xenophobia. These dangerous innovatory tendencies are usually confined to minorities, though these sometimes succeed in establishing strong political positions, as have Jewish extremism in Israel and ultra-evangelicalism in the USA, or even supremacy, as in Iran.

No traditional religion is immune to infection. The democratisation of non-European politics has brought more power to those open to the appeal of religious practice and weakened the relatively free-thinking political elites which (like the Founding Fathers of the USA and most of the post-1945 secular reforming rulers of Islamic countries) recognised these dangers. How far will this be counteracted by the explosive rise in the proportion of human beings with higher secular education? Or dangerously reinforced by the insecurities of our century? We do not know."
Of course, this is just a tiny sample of the writing of one of the most prolific historians of all time. Having studied history at university, my own experience of Hobsbawm has been as an ever-present figure on reading lists. While his Marxist perspective was controversial (he continued to call himself a Marxist historian long after the term had fallen from academic fashion), it would be almost impossible to study history without encountering the work of Eric Hobsbawm. He was perhaps best for his four "Age" books covering the history of the world from The Age of Revolution (1789-1848) to The Age of Extremes (1914-1991), but I would also recommend his fascinating autobiography Interesting Times (2002), his book on the philosophy of history, On History (1997), and Bandits (1969), in which he examined the figure of the outlaw as a recurring phenomenon across a diverse range of periods and societies.

We felt very privileged to be able to turn to Eric Hobsbawm for contributions to New Humanist, and will miss him greatly.